A lead article of two dozen pages in the current issue of U.S. Catholic Historian (Winter, Vol. 33) triggered a personal reminder to do a piece on Connecticut’s military chaplains during World War II. The Catholic Historian’s focus was a renowned Passionist Boston priest, Father Fabian Flynn, who went through the War with the Army’s 126th Infantry Regiment, with whom he survived action not only in North Africa against Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps, but also at Omaha Beach on D-Day, 6 June 1944. Reading Father Flynn’s story caused me to return to some notes I had been compiling over the years about Connecticut’s chaplains who served God and nation during World War II.
The record shows that at least four of our finest priests landed on D-Day. One was Msgr. Joseph Lacy, who unexpectedly found himself designated as a Ranger, and insisted that he accompany his unit despite its protestations that he could not keep up. Historian Stephen E. Ambrose, in his definitive work, D-Day (1994), wrote that “men saw Father Lacy go down to the water’s edge and pull the dead, dying, and wounded from the water and put them in relatively protected positions. He didn’t stop at that, but prayed for them and with them, gave comfort to the wounded and dying. A real man of God.”
One of the Rangers’ primary missions was to take out the enormous defensive guns at Pointe-du-Hoc. How the Rangers ever scaled this height, which massive pre-invasion aerial bombings could not neutralize, remains a mystery. My understanding is that the names of the Rangers are inscribed on a plaque there; Msgr. Lacy’s name is included. For his bravery he received the Distinguished Service Cross.
After the War, Msgr. Lacy filled various assignments in the Vatican before returning to Hartford, where he eventually became Pastor of St. Luke’s Church in the city’s South End.
Three other Connecticut priests were in Normandy on D-Day: Father John A. Kelly, a Silver Star recipient, wounded during battle; Father Leo J. Picher, who went on to teach seminarians at St. Thomas, Bloomfield; and Father Charles Murphy. I had the privilege to know personally the first two named above.
According to Sister Dolores Liptak’s Hartford’s Catholic Legacy – Leadership (1999), a total of 55 priests were in army or naval service by the War’s close. The first to give his life was Father Neil J. Doyle, wounded in the Solomon Islands; he was awarded a Distinguished Service Cross. Msgr. Terrence P. McMahon, who preceded me as Executive Editor of the Transcript and with whom I worked for several years as Associate Editor, was a survivor of countless Kamikaze attacks upon the celebrated carrier, the Hornet, which he served as chaplain. (This was the second Hornet, the first having been destroyed at Pearl Harbor.) Father John Crawford, who became Pastor of Incarnation, Wethersfield, after years in the European Theater and several unit battle citations, was also a well-known chaplain. Likewise, the Navy’s Father Leonard T. Goode, who returned to active duty at sea during the Korean War.
Hartford’s roster was replete with so many other dedicated chaplains: Msgr. James Kerwan (whose brother, Father Francis T., recently retired from active pastoral ministry, also had a distinguished record in uniform), Msgr. John P. Wodarski, Father Robert G. Keating; Father Stephen A. Grinvalsky; Bishop Vincent J. Hines, who became Bishop of Norwich; and on and on. (These six priests alone were veritable giants.)
Today, thanks to history books and films about World War II, these rugged, committed priests keep reappearing in our minds and hearts. When we see them in documentaries, for example, kneeling in the mud to hear a dying G.I.’s confession; or anointing a Marine who got caught in machine gun fire; or helping extricate a wounded flyer attempting to land on a carrier, we become more convinced that our minor witness to the Faith is hardly witness enough.
Not all our WWII chaplains are listed here. There was also one whose field Mass kit I used regularly during the time of the Vietnam War for a ready reserve company of Marines quartered in the Hartford area. We used to meet for Mass – usually my third Sunday Mass – within the West Hartford reservoir acreage, as well as on the banks of the Connecticut River, just north of Hartford. The experience was profound.
Bishop Maurice F. McAuliffe, who was Bishop of Hartford during the War years, up to 1944, wrote a letter of appreciation to each of his priests in service. In his final communication, which the Transcript published, he expressed his pride in these men especially because “facing eternity every day, [they]…act the part of brave men.”
Msgr. David Q. Liptak is Executive Editor of The Catholic Transcript and censor librorum for the Archdiocese of Hartford.